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I have passed through 700 years in a single hour. They’re not years I’ve lived, not even years I can imagine: 773900 BC to 773200 BC. As I read them aloud — “seven hundred seventy-three thousand nine hundred bee cee” — I try to picture what they might mean, what they might have been. All I can conjure are cartoonish images of cavemen painting bison on rock walls (which happened not even 50,000 years ago, so I’m not even close), and occasionally Jesus (Monty Python–style), since as a Jew I was always raised to stubbornly use BCE and instead here I am saying “BC” over and over again. At first I feel a little prickly about it, but I quickly give in to On Kawara, since he clearly thought about dates more than I ever have.
I’m sitting at a table in the Guggenheim’s rotunda alongside Brendan, a friendly lawyer for the museum who’s volunteered to read alongside me. Each of us has a microphone and a black binder with photocopied pages inside, pages upon pages filled with rows upon rows of numbers that are starting to fade in places. This is one copy of one binder of the ten that make up a single work in On Kawara’s One Million Years. There are twenty-four works in the series, so two hundred and forty binders. Each set contains one million years, which two participants read from in hourlong sessions. Some contain years in the past, counting down to when they were made (1970–71); others contain years in the future, counting away from their creation (1980–98).
Brendan and I read at a steady pace, he the odds and I the evens (Kawara’s instructions), a healthy pause hanging in the air between each one. This seems fitting given that each number represents a whole year, each line an entire decade. We read and swiftly cross out our numbers with pencils as we go, using rulers to keep ourselves on track, but even then we stumble. Brendan says “seven thousand seven three …” by accident, and I look down at the abyssal page, suddenly struggling to find my number and remember how it’s actually spoken. “Seven — hundred — seventy-three … ” And then as quickly as we trip, we regain our stride.
So much performance art is built on a foundation of inspired persistence, and one of the beauties of One Million Years is that it offers that experience to those who would normally just watch. Thirty minutes into my hour I had to pee and still hadn’t figured out how to sit comfortably in my chair, but I knew I had signed an invisible contract with On Kawara (as well as a physical one with the Guggenheim), so I continued reading years. There is a kind of freedom in being forced to stick with something past the point when you’d normally quit. You adapt and crudely make your own meaning. I tried, as much as I could, to look up when I spoke my years, making eye contact with museum visitors, offering them my numbers as I would my hand: a gesture of affinity. And I tried to enunciate, projecting the unfathomable past into the mystical modernist spiral, hoping my delivery would be worthy of these pre-human years, of the artist who brought them into the present, and of the building that’s currently serving as their home.
On Kawara—Silence continues at the Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 3. Volunteers who wish to participate in the reading of One Million Years should email firstname.lastname@example.org with “Volunteer” in the subject line.